COPPELL, Texas -- Minyard Food Stores here has re-entered the meals arena with a plan designed to cover all bases.Convenience is the major ingredient. The concept features chilled, made-from-scratch fare in three stages of preparation -- ready-to-cook, ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat -- displayed together in a meals center. Chefs and kitchen coaches, too, are on hand to help meals seekers decide what

COPPELL, Texas -- Minyard Food Stores here has re-entered the meals arena with a plan designed to cover all bases.

Convenience is the major ingredient. The concept features chilled, made-from-scratch fare in three stages of preparation -- ready-to-cook, ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat -- displayed together in a meals center. Chefs and kitchen coaches, too, are on hand to help meals seekers decide what to buy.

"The idea is to appeal to the broadest range of customers possible," said Arley Morrison, vice president of Minyard Food Stores, which operates 46 stores under the Minyard banner, 21 Sack n' Save warehouse-format stores and 17 smaller Carnival stores, all in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The new concept -- which replaces an earlier effort in one store that involved a line-up of branded, hot food kiosks -- has been installed at three Minyard stores and is scheduled to go into another before the first of the year.

The meal components, primarily intended for eating slightly later at home, are prepared and packed in-store in single-serving containers and merchandised at the meals center, which stands smack in the middle of the fresh-foods power aisle. The shop-around display, with a larger overhead sign designating it "The Meal Center," includes a demo kitchen where a chef and kitchen coach are charged with helping customers in any way they can.

"Besides the added variety of product, the biggest departure from what we've had [in meals] before is the degree of consumer friendliness -- just the sheer way we're catering to our customers. We've always offered quality products, but now we offer more, and we're trying to make it as convenient as possible for customers to buy what they want from us," said Morrison.

"The kitchen coaches and chefs are there to show customers how to have fun preparing a meal, and to answer questions. For example, they might advise them on how to cook seafood and keep it from turning tough," Morrison added.

Previously, the chain's only nod to home-meal replacement had consisted of branded, hot, ready-to-eat foods. The new concept, featuring proprietary recipes and the variety of ways the fare is presented, is expected to differentiate Minyard from other meals providers, Morrison said.

"The fast-food restaurants are covered up with people in the afternoon. We're just looking to get some of those dollars back. We've always aimed to give customers what they want, but, particularly now, we have to be smarter than the average bear," he added.

Now, nine months after the first store was retrofitted for the new meals program, it looks as if it's paying off.

Total fresh-food sales are up by 10% to 15% at the first store. And the meals components in their various degrees of preparation are selling at least up to projections there and at the two other stores that have a meals center, Morrison said.

Previously, the chain had leased space in a remodeled unit to Orion Foods, Sioux Falls, S.D., for a full complement of Orion's branded concepts -- Moose Bros. pizza, Cinnamon Street cinnamon rolls, and branded fried chicken, Chinese and Mexican programs.

That line-up was benched in favor of the new meals-center concept that Minyard has developed with the help of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio, consulting firm that works with supermarkets.

"We felt that we didn't have enough control with the Orion branded programs, and they just weren't performing as well as either we or Orion had expected them to," Morrison said.

The newly conceived meals center concept has been made the focal point at a newly constructed, prototype store that opened in Plano, Texas, late last year. SN visited it and other Minyard stores last month.

"This store [at Plano] gave us the opportunity to bring everything together in the fresh-foods aisle," said Morrison. The first two stores where the meals centers were launched were remodels that had physical limitations that prevented, for example, bunching bakery, deli and the meals center together.

At the Plano store, bakery has been brought to the fresh-foods aisle. Indeed, it's the first element customers see, straight ahead, anchoring the left side of the fresh aisle.

To the right, against the front window, is limited seating, and a small hot table that serves fried chicken, ribs, and, in the mornings, a $1.99 breakfast special.

Between the hot table and the beginning of the service deli counter stands a display of hot, dome-packaged rotisserie chickens. The rotisserie itself is just behind the service counter.

Morrison pointed out that in this newest store, the self-service rotisserie chicken display has been brought in-line with the service deli counter. In other stores, it is in an island display case.

"It's better [in-line] from a labor standpoint and also it's more visible, we think. Customers can't miss it in this spot," Morrison said.

He also pointed out that not a great number of chickens are displayed.

"We don't cook a whole lot of them at a time. Associates will do maybe 10 and then later do more as they begin to sell," Morrison said.

Next in line is the service deli, which is decked out with a long display case that is part service and part self-service. From the top shelf of the case, associates can serve customers. Customers can also serve themselves from a three-tiered, open display that forms the lower part of the case.

Next in line is an open produce-preparation area behind in-line displays.

Open work areas in all the fresh departments are a mark of Minyard's new meals direction, Morrison said.

He said the biggest challenge with the meals program is developing the trust of the customer, and the company sees open work areas as one way to gain the customer's confidence.

"They see that the work area is clean and that everything is fresh. They see the associates cutting fresh produce, for instance," Morrison said.

Also, the "kitchen coaches," chosen for their "people" skills as well as their culinary experience, help gain customers' trust, he added. So do labels and signs with nutritional information and cooking suggestions.

At the Plano store, SN observed that the full-blown meal center there lends itself well to cross merchandising. A basket of fresh-baked baguettes and a small rack of moderately priced wines flanked one side of the meals center. A large basket of beefsteak tomatoes had a spot in one end of the refrigerated case and salsas and herbed vinegars and oils were displayed in front of the refrigerated case.

Like Morrison, George Timms, director of deli operations for Minyard, sees the meals-center concept as the best way to compete with restaurants. "The quality and flavor of our products is like what you'd find in a really good restaurant. It's white-tablecloth food," Timms said.

He said he believes, too, that the packaging in single-serving containers is important.

"People can mix and match. Instead of packing a meal with an entree and two sides like I've seen others do, we're letting them make their own choices," Timms said.

He also commented on customers' response to the chain's new meals approach.

"Customers tell us they appreciate the freshness and quality of the food, and I see them talking to the chefs, asking what kind of olive oil, for instance, they should use in a recipe," Timms said.

Signage and labels are an important part of the concept.

Danglers that read, "What's to Eat!" hang over the meals center, and in other strategically located spots in the fresh-foods aisle. Color-coded stickers on packages of food indicate its degree of preparation; for example, oval stickers on the packaged components read, "Ready to Cook" or "Ready to Heat."

Chalkboard signs call attention to particular sections and items.

As reported in SN, July 20, 1998, Minyard has embarked on a marketing campaign designed to explain the meals program to customers.

Something as seemingly simple as signage and labels can help the consumer cut down on the time spent shopping, Morrison pointed out. "We've definitely come to the conclusion that signs sell," he said.

Morrison gave credit to Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, and Carin Solganik, vice president of the consulting firm, for helping Minyard develop the concept and get it under way. But Howard Solganik said the commitment at Minyard will be the winning card.

"I have to give Minyard's credit, because grocery companies traditionally don't easily accept change. Minyard's is a very, very good traditional grocery company that has really begun to embrace this concept, which is new to them. They're taking ownership of it and that's why it will work," Solganik said.

Solganik explained why the three degrees of preparation are the core of the concept.

"It offers the customers the most convenience because they can mix and match products according to how much time and effort they want to put into preparing a meal. Americans are not totally giving up cooking. They just want to be able to do it faster and not make a mess of it," he said.

Marinades for chicken breasts and meats for grilling were developed with the Solganiks' help, and the newly developed items are offered in the meat case as well as at the meals center.

Kabobs are huge sellers in Texas, Morrison told SN.

"We'll sell five whole pans of them in half a day from the meat service case," he said.

But a key ingredient in the roster of new menu items is a variety of ready-to-cook vegetables as well as ready-to-cook meat and poultry entrees.

"People just aren't attuned to cooking. These carrots are really good, and so are the green beans," Morrison said as he pointed to baby carrots with sesame seed sauce and green beans almondine in microwavable, domed containers. They were displayed in the produce case, alongside prepared salads, at one store.

Ready-to-cook vegetables and marinated entrees are merchandised alongside such items as fully cooked rosemary potatoes in the meals-center case.

Bringing products from all the fresh departments together is the backbone of the program from an operational standpoint.

"With this concept we're trying to give each department involved accountability for shrink and sales, and so forth, and yet create a [meals] focus for the customer," Solganik said.

The program, with its choices, serves as an information-gathering vehicle as well, Morrison pointed out. For example, the chain is keeping close tabs on which is the biggest selling sub-category -- ready-to-heat or ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat. So far, the ready-to-heat items are enjoying a slight edge, but they're all selling, Morrison said.

"It's hard to tell which will be the most popular three years from now," he said. But, he added, Minyard will be ready to give customers what they want, whatever it is.